diamond geezer

 Thursday, March 10, 2022

Route 57: Clapham Park to Kingston
Location: London southwest, outer
Length of bus journey: 11 miles, 70 minutes

It's traditional around every birthday that I take a numerically significant bus journey. Fifteen years ago I took the 42 to Dulwich, then subsequently the 43 to Barnet, the 44 to Tooting, the 45 to Clapham, the 46 to Farringdon, the 47 to Bellingham, the 48 to Walthamstow, the 49 to Battersea, the 50 to Croydon, the 51 to Orpington, the 52 to Willesden, the 53 to Whitehall, the 54 to Elmers End, the 55 to Oxford Circus and most recently the 56 to Smithfield. This year it's a lengthy suburban safari, the 57 to Kingston.

My starting point is an elongated grassy roundabout on the South Circular in the backwoods between Clapham and Streatham. It's the same place where I ended my journey on the 45 so I've known this moment was coming since 2010. My double decker is older than that and has arrived fresh from the depot, early enough for the driver to pop out for a smoke. As the clock ticks down he stubs his butt, pats his phone away, climbs aboard and fires up the engine. Just me, then. I clamber up to the top front seat, because sitting any further back diminishes the narrative, and wonder whether this year's bus ride is going to be an eventful journey. Because of where I've sat, it absolutely is.

We're soon on the climb past the interwar council blocks of the Clapham Park estate, which is in completely the wrong direction based on our ultimate destination. Another passenger joins us at the next stop, plus a puffed-out mother our driver kindly waits for because TfL needs customers. At the big traffic lights we filter right onto Streatham Hill while a beggar briefly pauses from his cup-shaking shtick and walks back to the front of the queue. The main road south appears to be extraordinarily over-bused, which it turns out is because 11 different routes go this way, which may have something to do with Brixton Bus Garage being the next stop. One of these surplus routes is the 59 which means you can expect a ride to Streatham again in two years' time (and, sigh, again in three).

Streatham has one of the longest High Streets in the country but we're only going to follow half of it. Its multitude of outlets includes a Wimpy and a Greggs side by side, a beauty salon called Tracey Nails, a carpet shop that looks like it was once a cinema and an Odeon that somehow still is. Banners tied to lampposts urge residents to Shop Local and they easily could, although rarely at a big name store. We keep pulling in at bus stops where it turns out nobody wanted us, they were waiting for one of the multitude of other services. But at St Leonard's Church I spy four young girls in rainbow jackets bouncing up and down with glee on the pavement as the 57 approaches, their shrieks only growing louder as we pull in. "All aboard!" cries Mummy, "and up you go!". My narrative feature has arrived and will be with us for the next six paragraphs.

The girls bound up to the front seats which they anticipate are theirs, but are disappointed to see both are taken. The other occupant kindly stands and retreats to the rear, but I'm staying put because this is my birthday bus, plus I got here first. My comeuppance is swift as three of the girls pile into the vacated seat and Mummy tucks up beside me clutching the fourth... and then Mummy Two slots in behind. The cacophony is immediate. I Can See Everything! Down There Is My School! It's All Crazy!! The girls are particularly excited because we're heading downhill and approaching a bit of a hump across a railway line, which they treat as if it were part of a theme park ride. Amazing! Woo Hoo!! Again! Again! Again! Again! This is not how I'd envisaged my 57 ride would be.

Had I caught a different vehicle I'd be now recounting some of the delights of Mitcham Lane, like the cherry blossom, the Furzedown pub and the twin churches at the summit. Instead I'm listening to some very loud six year-olds with a need to state the obvious. Oh I See More Buses! Hello Driver! Wow I Can Even See Faraway Trees It's Amazing! Personally I would have focused on the faraway pylons, somewhere over Sutton way, but I doubt they know what one of those is yet. Just before the River Graveney we pause to turn right (cue more screeching) and set off along a backroad towards Tooting. This has been traffic calmed with pedestrian islands at regular intervals, so obviously the girls assume We're About To Crash!! and repeat this every time we squeeze through another gap. There are a lot of them.

We make it through to Amen Corner, which might have been well named if only the girls were getting off but they're not. I recognise Mitcham Road from my younger self's journey on the 44 (in good news this is the last of today's birthday repeats). The loudest girl has now discovered she can slide along the handrail as the bus negotiates a bend so Mummy tells her not to, and also to close her mouth because she's revealing her 'toothy gap'. This provokes giggles and also sets off the two parents on a lengthy chat about wobbly teeth, and I can't decide if my readers would rather be hearing about this or the Art Deco bingo club we've just passed. The girls meanwhile are judging other drivers... He's Going To Get a Fine! ...based on woefully inadequate understanding of the Highway Code.

My hopes of imminent salvation are raised at Tooting Broadway station when Mummy Two rises from her seat. Alas it's only because she's whipped out her smartphone and is asking everyone to turn round for a photo. The girls pause from screeching and tell her they don't say Cheese, they say Silly Sausages, and I suspect the subsequent image is out there on a Facebook feed somewhere. Ahead is yet another slight hill to get overexcited about, Wheeee!, but that's nothing compared to the fuss when Cuddly Monkey is pulled out of Mummy's bag. The girls all want to play with it but are firmly told to give it back to the child on Mummy's knee, who it turns out was a boy all along. In southwest London one should never assume that long flaxen hair is genderable.

Colliers Wood High Street has been given the cheap-but-effective cycle lane treatment, i.e. reflective posts at regular intervals sealing off the inside lanes. Listen I Can Count To Ten! I'm pleased to see the Charles Holden pub is still afloat, even if Graffiti Burger has gone under. Are We Taking Two Buses? Are We? The monolithic tower block by the station looks less dour now it's been reclad. Yes And Then Back Again! Thankfully we don't get to change drivers outside the bus garage, this being where the 57 stables overnight. I Know Two And Two Is Four! The Mummies have completely switched off from their offspring's conversation and are now discussing the holiday one's booked to Crete, how nice the pool sounds and which of the credit cards they've put it on.

I recognise Abbey Parade from my very first Random Borough trip, although a lot of the shops have since been converted to shabby residential. The girls remain crash-obsessed, though are somehow convinced they'll be safe from dying because they're upstairs. Another right turn swings us round towards Wimbledon Broadway past the Polka Theatre and then the YMCA. Mummy tries to get the oldest to say the name out loud ("Come on, it's like the song!) but because she's been taught phonics it comes out as Yuh Muh Sah Ah and so she's none the wiser. Then comes the moment I've been praying for as Cuddly Monkey is packed away and the girls brace to alight. "Down we go!" cries Mummy, and I listen as they scream off down the stairs and continue their hullabaloo on the pavement. Passengers on the 93 have no idea what they're in for.

It's time to negotiate the Wimbledon gyratory in relative peace. This includes a brief visit to the town's no-expense-spent bus station and a chance to enjoy the back of Morrisons. Outside Wimbledon station three boys fresh from a kickabout - let's call them Stussy, JD and Mitre - wander through the traffic and bash on the door, with no success. They decide to chance a mad dash to the next stop round the corner, and easily make it because we have three red lights to queue through. I'm nervous as they head upstairs, but relieved when they head straight for the back of the bus because they're twice as old as the previous lot. Their run now proves to have been even more unnecessary because the driver is waiting for a lady on crutches to clamber aboard. I hear swearing from the rear seat which I will not repeat, in capitals or otherwise.

Ahead is Worple Road where SW19 merges into SW20 and the council tax band nudges gently upwards. A man with a leather bag full of golf clubs boards a few stops down, as if to prove the point. Cherry blossom and tulip trees are out in full force, which isn't usually the case on my birthday bus ride. The three footballing lads bound off, but not before one of them has paused to yell "Thank you driver!", proving you should never prejudge your fellow passengers too early. A red face on a lamppost frowns at the car in front for doing 23, whereas our driver gets a smiling green face for doing 15. And hey presto here we are in Raynes Park, a definite notch above, where you can brunch at Babylon and where the former Barclays Bank is now the domain of New Life Aesthetics.

I'm making this journey on the day of the Wimbledon Half Marathon so a steady stream of athletes is jogging towards us, by the looks of them probably on their second lap. The course prefers pounding the streets to squelching across the Common, and the budget only stretches to handing out cups of water rather than bottles of energy drink, but the gritted smiles on the faces of the runners appear genuine. The 57 is the only bus to pass the end of Beverley Avenue, the actual fictional home of river goddess Beverley Brook in the Rivers of London books by Ben Aaronovitch. The stream of the same name passes her back garden, followed closely by the A3 dual carriageway... which we rise to cross and then glide back down (landing between Spar and Currie Motors).

Coombe Lane West is where the money is, an undulating road lined by large detached homes with hedge-screened gardens. Private roads lead off to either side, most of them multi-garaged, so there are no takers for our £1.65 bus ride. From behind comes half a conversation it's very hard to ignore, a phone call from a young woman wearing tight leathery leggings and what looks like yesterday's make-up. She's tells her friend "I actually got kidnapped", moans that "they're banned so why am I not banned" and has to break off because "Nicki's Whatsapping me". She must be all of 19, so when she launches a reminiscence from "back in the day when we was young" I suddenly feel very old. Three times as old, in fact, but let's not go there.

Only single deckers are allowed under the low bridge by Norbiton station so instead we turn right to serve the local hospital, which to be fair is what TfL services prefer to do anyway. It's a lot safer to approach the town centre via Kingston Hill, which is a steady descent past banks of flats new and not so new. I bet no pub earlier en route would have dared paint a Virginia Woolf quote across its front wall. The grounds of Tiffin School contain a 14th century freestanding chapel and, immediately alongside, a rotunda extension resembling a car showroom. Our final stop lies ahead at Fairfield bus station, the lesser of Kingston's two interchanges, where all remaining passengers pour out and flood off to the shops.

Across the road I spot a double decker on route 65 - a reminder that it's only eight years until I'll be back here again, maybe with a bus pass. There are many journeys to be taken between now and then, though hopefully none so loud.

Route 57: route map
Route 57: live route map
Route 57: route history
Route 57: route history
Route 57: timetable
Route 57: The Ladies Who Bus

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